- The Philadelphia 76ers are thriving without Joel Embiid at the moment. They have Ben Simmons, a first-year supernova and future star, to thank for that.
PHILADELPHIA—Critics of Ben Simmons’s hotly contested Rookie of the Year case were quick to point out how different his performance looked when Tweeter-of-the-Year Joel Embiid was on the bench. For most of the season, that trope held true. With Embiid out and Simmons on, the Sixers had a paltry net rating of 0.9 this season. When Embiid suffered a facial fracture on March 28, with the Sixers in the midst of a seven-game winning streak, the onus shifted to Simmons to keep the team hot headed into the postseason—and the rookie delivered.
Before Embiid’s injury, Philly had a minus-2.5 net rating when Simmons played without his big man. After March 28, the Simmons-led 76ers had a 16.7 net rating with their rookie as the lone star, a mark that would have led the NBA by a full-court heave. It’s a surefire sign of Simmons’s growth throughout his freshman campaign, and now the precocious point guard has a chance to make his name in the space all legends before him did: The playoffs.
Simmons’s postseason career started about as well as possible, when he posted a near triple-double against the Heat in a 130–103, blowout Game 1 win. Perhaps most impressively, Simmons controlled the pace of the game whenever he was on the floor, forcing Miami into a track meet, and the Heat couldn’t keep up.
Few rookies are as polished headed into their first postseason as Simmons. He’s both a willing and capable defender. He knows his limitations, eschewing jump shots in favor of bullish drives to the rim and an array of hooks, layups and dunks. His passing provides energy to Philly’s swath of shooters, and his rebounding keeps possessions alive or kickstarts fastbreaks. His demeanor, according to veteran sharpshooter J.J. Redick, should also be of benefit.
“Ben, specifically, is not affected by pressure,” Redick said before Game 1. “At least from what I’ve seen, he always rises to the occasion. There’s a competitive juice that he has for big games. He takes things personally. He cares, he wants to win. Those are all attributes that will serve him well in the playoffs.”
The playoffs can be a different beast for the game’s greatest stars, however. LeBron James’s Cavs had a negative-4.8 net rating in his first postseason run, which came in his third year in the league. Carmelo Anthony’s Nuggets were even worse when he made the playoffs as a rookie, with a negative-10.1 net rating. Dwyane Wade’s Heat fared slightly better thanks to a cast of veterans, as Miami broke even with its future superstar on the court. Simply put, the historical context of first-time postseason players—even among the NBA’s legends—can charitably be described as a mixed bag, but Simmons is in position to buck that trend.
The Sixers, by at least one measure, were arguably the second-best team in the East this season. Their +4.5 point differential trailed only the Raptors. Philly also had the fourth-best net rating in the NBA, again only trailing Toronto within the conference. With a talented cast around him—and a mix of vets and youngsters—Simmons has a chance to succeed with or without Embiid.
Simmons can thrive in multiple environments, but most consistently when he’s surrounded by shooters. For example, a lineup of Simmons, Dario Saric, J.J. Redick, Robert Covington and Amir Johnson had an offensive efficiency of 20.4 down the Embiid-less stretch of the regular season. That’s the diet version of Philly’s dominant starting lineup, which posted an absurd net rating of 21.4 in the regular season, easily the best mark by any group that played more than 300 minutes together. Without Embiid, the Sixers compensated by picking up the pace.
“This is sort of how we've played since [Embiid] has been out,” Redick said after Game 1. “It creates a lot of problems for the defense because there's a lot of times where we're playing Ersan [Ilyasova] and Dario Saric together at the four and five and the other two wings are shooters and you've got Ben going downhill. If it's an open floor you've got to make a choice and it’s pick-and-pop, two-man, catch and shoot. There's all sorts of problems.”
Simmons certainly looked comfortable when Philly went five-out during the final eight games of the regular season. While the Sixers as a whole may not have been better, the absence of Embiid did allow Simmons to spread the ball more easily. His assist-to-turnover ratio and assist ratio both increased in Embiid-less minutes after the injury compared to earlier in the season.
That held true again in Game 1. Redick and Marco Bellinelli feasted from three, and Simmons willingly found his shooters coming off screens or when he forayed into the paint. The Heat sagged off Simmons every time down the floor, and that strategy appeared to backfire in Game 1. Simmons happily took the space and worked his way into the paint, putting pressure on defenders. Philadelphia got into its offensive sets so quickly that Miami’s attempts to bait Simmons by dropping on pick-and-rolls proved fruitless. And Brett Brown outmaneuvered Erik Spoelstra by selling out with shooters on the floor, starting Ilyasova in the second half to effectively scheme Hassan Whiteside out of the game.
There’s also something to be said about how much the Philly crowd responds to just about everything Simmons does. The Sixers faithful were already frothing at the mouths before their first playoff game in six years. Every time Simmons would so much as enter the paint, fans would begin to roar in anticipation. When Simmons crossed over Kelly Olynyk en route to a vicious dunk in the second half of Game 1, the noise in the arena reached deafening levels, only emboldening Simmons for the rest of the night.
Of course, defenses typically tighten over the course a seven-game series, and Simmons will have to be prepared for opposing coaches to gameplan for his every strength. How the rookie responds to the new level of intensity will go a long way in determining his level of success in the playoffs. It works in his favor that he doesn’t have to rely on scoring to impact a win. As we saw in Game 1, Simmons dominated without scoring 20 points.
Though the hardware would be nice, eventually, Rookie of the Year awards fade into obscurity. What really announces a player’s arrival is the moment they prove they can dominate when the competition is at its fiercest. Embiid has already had his All-Star turn. The playoffs will be Simmons’s best opportunity yet to show where he belongs in the conversation as one of the NBA’s best.